Foreign Relations & International Law

Ousted Yemeni President Killed, Trump Administration Considers Moving Embassy in Israel, Turkish Officials Go on Trial

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, December 5, 2017, 10:00 AM

Ousted Yemeni President Killed after Breaking Alliance with Houthis

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo: Wikimedia/Krokodyl)

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Ousted Yemeni President Killed after Breaking Alliance with Houthis

Ali Abdullah Saleh entered office as president of North Yemen in 1978 after the assassination of his two predecessors in rapid succession. A colonel who had risen through the ranks as a tank commander in the country’s Nasserist rebellion against the Saudi-backed monarchy, he lacked political experience, or even a formal education, and many expected his rule to be similarly brief. Instead, he retained his seat for almost 34 years, overseeing the country’s union with South Yemen in 1990 and the civil war against southern factions four years later, and a series of clashes with the Houthis in the early 2000s. Despite being an inconstant ally, he won the patronage of the Saudi government he fought against in the 1960s. Even as popular protests surged against his rule in 2011, he clung to power until February 2012, outlasting Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi and surviving a bomb attack that left him with severe burns on much of his body. He eventually ceded power to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in a referendum that was supposed to usher in a political transition to a stable, inclusive democracy. The transition never came, at least in part because Saleh, from the moment he left office, did everything within his power to claw back control of the country.

He has played every side of the conflict. He stayed involved in the politics of the General People’s Congress, his political party, and rallied his loyalists against the new administration. He was dogged by rumors that he had supported al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or at least given them room to operate, to undermine the transition. But he also formed an alliance with AQAP’s chief targets in Yemen, the Houthis, the same political movement that Saleh had fought against for a decade as president. Saleh’s partnership with the Houthis gave them the power and legitimacy to sweep into Sanaa and force out President Hadi and his internationally-recognized government, prompting a new civil war and a Saudi-led intervention in March 2015. Over the past two and a half years, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the war, with thousands more dead of a preventable cholera outbreak and severe malnutrition. Nearly 20 million Yemenis—more than two-thirds the population—are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, according to the World Health Organization. Since the start of the Arab Spring, Saleh has proved willing to burn his country to the ground if it meant being king of the ashes.

Saleh’s endgame was always to turn on the Houthis and try to reassert his power. In recent months, he tried to gain more control of the government in Sanaa, prompting clashes with the Houthis in September. Increasingly penned in politically by the Houthis, he finally made his move last week. He broke with the Houthis, and Saleh loyalists began skirmishing with Houthi forces in the streets. On Saturday, he called on Saudi Arabia to back him against the Houthis—and Riyadh did, bombing Houthi positions in the capital. "I call upon the brothers in neighboring states and the alliance to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports and allow food aid and the saving of the wounded and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighborliness,” he said in a speech. He rallied his supporters for the fight against the Houthis. “The Zero Hour now looms upon us. Brace yourselves, the real fight has not yet begun,” he said, after more than two years of civil war. Residents of Sanaa reported heavy fighting all through the weekend.

On Monday, Saleh’s entourage drove south from Sanaa and his hometown of Sanhan towards Mareb. His car was attacked by Houthi forces—some reports say with a rocket-propelled grenade, though others say he was shot by a sniper and photos show bullet holes in the windshield. By some accounts, he was dragged from his car and shot in the road. Shortly after, photos and videos began circulating on the internet of Saleh’s corpse, wrapped in a blanket and being tossed in the back of a dusty pickup truck. In the end, despite all his political machinations, he could not escape the history of his own violent rule. As Nadwa Dawsari, a non-resident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy notes, Houthi fighters around him can be heard shouting, “Your revenge, Sayeedi Hussein,” referring to the founder of the Houthi movement killed by Saleh’s forces in 2004. His death is another ignominious end to a despot who once seemed untouchable. He leaves behind a legacy of state collapse and destruction. Ali Abdullah Saleh has seen the end of the wars he perpetrated against his own country; Yemen has not.

Sanaa was once again under heavy bombardment on Monday night. Observers of Yemeni politics warned yesterday that Saleh’s death could worsen the conflict, despite the removal of one of the major figures in the war. "For all his faults, Saleh was a known quantity," one Western diplomat told BuzzFeed. "You knew you could cut a deal with him. He wasn't ideological. He was looking out for his own interests." The leadership of Saleh’s loyal forces and General People’s Congress is now up for grabs; possible successors include his son, Ahmed, who Saleh was grooming to succeed him before his ouster in 2012, and his nephew and military advisor, Tareq, but if neither acts quickly, Saleh’s faction could splinter. Houthi forces reportedly pressed their advantage in Sanaa today and have continued to fire missiles across the border toward intervening states—including one targeting a nuclear plant under construction in the United Arab Emirates. But they are also bracing for a new offensive from the internationally-recognized government and the Saudi-led intervention force; Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a close Saleh ally who defected to the popular opposition during the Arab Spring and now commands the Hadi government’s military, has reportedly been ordered to begin advancing toward Sanaa. The war in Yemen is about to get bloodier and there are no immediate prospects for peace.

Is the Trump Administration Preparing a Peace Ultimatum?

The Trump administration has been quietly preparing a new push on the peace process. The New York Times reported last month that Jared Kushner, head negotiator Jason Greenblatt, Amb. David Friedman, and Dina Powell were consulting with policy experts about a new framework that could be ready early next year. But early pieces of what the proposal might look like have trickled out of meetings, at which it has been promoted by Israeli and Saudi diplomats. Palestinian officials described to the Times a proposal that includes none of the concessions for which Palestinian negotiators have pushed. On offer is a non-contiguous Palestinian state with limited rights of self-governance; Israel would maintain control of “the vast majority” of its West Bank settlements, and would prevent the Palestinians from relocating their capital to East Jerusalem. One Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset said the proposal he saw would grant the new state “moral sovereignty,” but the Times did not elaborate on what that would mean in practice.

The White House and Saudi government are staying tight lipped about the proposal. “We know what’s in the plan... The Palestinians know what discussions we’ve had with them. The Israelis know what discussions we’ve had with them,” Kushner said at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum over the weekend.

If the offer reported this week was made outright, it’s hard to imagine a Palestinian politician accepting the terms proposed. But the Saudis are already driving a hard bargain. According to the Times, Saudi officials reportedly pressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept the Trump administration’s forthcoming proposal when Abbas was summoned to Riyadh last month. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is said to have offered large financial incentives to the Palestinians if they agree to the proposal, but if Abbas refuses “he would be pressed to resign to make way for a replacement who would.”

The behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering coincides with the Trump administration evaluating whether to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As Scott Anderson and Yishai Schwartz note in a recent piece for Lawfare, the U.S. president defers moving the embassy every six months; U.S. policy has held that the embassy will finally be moved when a peace agreement definitively settles the status of Jerusalem. Israeli officials have been arguing vociferously in favor of the move and seemed optimistic last week. But on Monday, the White House said it was still deliberating about the issue. As it does, other leaders have urged President Trump not to move the embassy, including French President Emmanuel Macron, the Saudi ambassador, and Jordan’s King Abdullah, who reportedly help sway Trump against moving the embassy six months ago.

The Trump administration does not stand to gain anything from moving the embassy, though it would be another show of support for the Israeli government. That seems like a small benefit for the blowback it will likely inflict. The State Department is already warning that U.S. embassies could face attacks in response to the policy, if it is announced. It could also kill even just the prospect of peace talks. Anderson and Schwartz write that the effects will depend on the planning that goes into the decision: If it’s integrated into a broader strategy for reaching a peace agreement, it may have a minimal effect, but if it’s a slapdash, unilateral decision, it could undermine not just the prospects for the peace process, but the strong ties between the Trump administration and the Gulf. Other experts, including CFR President Richard Haass and former negotiator Aaron David Miller, wrote yesterday that it would be a needless, unforced error.

The U.S. Trial Turkey Didn’t Want to Happen

After months of drama, Reza Zarrab testified last week at a district court in New York, not as a defendant but now the star witness in a case about Turkish efforts to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. The Turkish government has tried to prevent the trial for months because the case against Zarrab would smear other senior officials as well—former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Halk Bank Deputy General Manager Suleyman Aslan are also under indictment. In testimony last Wednesday, Zarrab said the conspiracy to violate U.S. nuclear sanctions went all the way to the top. “The prime minister at that time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, … had given instructions, had given an order ... to start doing the trade,” he said.

By Zarrab’s account, he paid $60 million in bribes to Caglayan to facilitate a deal in which billions of dollars of Iranian funds were traded under the pretext that they were licit gold exchanges. "At the end of the day we did not hide anything from Zafer Caglayan, we did everything within his knowledge," he said. Turkish officials have dismissed the trial as a Gulenist plot against Ankara, but Erdogan seemed more circumspect in recent comments to his political party. “We have trade and energy ties with Iran. We did not breach the sanctions [on Iran]. Whatever the verdict is, we did the right thing,” he said last week.

Erdogan was already facing down recent public accusations that he had deposited $15 million in an offshore tax haven. The chief prosecutor’s office in Ankara announced last week that it was opening an investigation of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition politician who made the claim. Turkish courts also lashed out at the United States last week, issuing a warrant for Graham Fuller, an 80-year-old retired CIA officer and academic who Turkish officials claim participated in the coup attempt in July 2016.

Ryan Gingeras writes in Foreign Affairs that the Zarrab trial is just the most glaring example of a broader trend toward corruption and lawlessness in Turkish politics. Ankara has turned a blind eye to proliferating smuggling, abetted crime with weak money laundering laws, and dismissed any accusation of corruption as a Gulenist conspiracy. “The incremental decline of the rule of law in the country will likely further stimulate illegal trafficking into Europe and the United States, leading to a growth in the trade of narcotics, weapons, and illicit funds, as well as migrants,” he writes.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and an instructor at the Naval War College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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